Marisa Mazria Katz

Journalist, Producer, Editor

Codex Sassoon


One of the world's oldest Hebrew Bibles went up for auction. I told the story about it for NPR.

In the middle of a windowless room in Sotheby's Upper East Side auction house, crowds swarm a 26-pound book that looks straight out of an old master's painting, with crinkled, yellowed parchment covered in thick, black Hebrew script. This is the Codex Sassoon. Codex is what you call an ancient manuscript - and Sassoon for the name of its most famous owner, collector David Solomon Sassoon.

The origins of the book are a bit murky. The first time it was sold was around 1000 A.D. Roughly 200 years later, someone wrote a dedication inside to a synagogue in Syria. But then, for nearly 600 years, there was no record of its whereabouts until Sassoon got his hands on it in the 1920s. He was a member of one of the wealthiest merchant families of the late 19th and early 20th centuries and was also one of the greatest collectors of Hebrew manuscripts. Claudia Nahson, a curator of a show about the Sassoon family at New York's Jewish Museum, says he saw the codex as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

"I mean, if - you know, as soon as he learned that this was available, he pursued it earnestly," said Nahson.

Sotheby's relied on carbon dating plus scholarly research to authenticate the book. Sassoon paid 350 British pounds for it - around $22,000 today - which is also about $29 million below Sotheby's current asking price. The high price could mean it ends up back in a private collection.

In the end, the book was purchased for a museum in Tel Aviv for $38.1 million. A record for a historical manuscript.